Erin Zammett Ruddy - Author. Writer. Blogger. Survivor.
  • Why Kid Sports Scare the $@#! Out of Me

    April 10th, 2013

    My friend who lives in Tennessee shared this with me. Not a bad reminder for some of the crazier youth sports parents, huh?

    I wrote a big piece for the April issue of Parenting called “The Risks and Rewards of Youth Sports.” In it I covered everything from the massive benefits sports offer our kids (better grades, more social, more confidence, less likely to do drugs, get pregnant, etc.), to injury prevention and the latest trends. But also something called “the professionalization of youth sports” which frightens me and fascinates me. You can read the whole piece here. I absolutely loved reporting this story because I’m living it right now (read the lede for a great example). The best part of my job is that I get to research and write about the things that are relevant to my life. I have learned so much about so many things as a freelance writer and I feel extremely lucky that I get paid to do this. But knowing so much also gets me a tad obsessed with things (see antibiotics), which can be an occupational hazard. And this is one story I can’t stop thinking about—or talking about with anyone who will listen.

    I live in an area where youth sports are huge. And competitive. And they start young. Certainly things get competitive and kids specialize in one sport much earlier than we did in my day. I have a five- and three-year-old so we’re not in the thick of things yet, but we’re close. My five-year-old son, Alex, loves sports and, so far, seems to excel. He’s currently soccer obsessed (he wants to be Lionel Messi when he grows up) and he’s quite good…for a five year old, anyway. Nick and I adore his passion and love watching him play. But we are constantly tempering his athletic pursuits with other stuff: Playing in the backyard, fishing with his grandfather, family vacations, art, homework, down time—all of which he also loves. Sure, we could find him a travel team or get him a trainer or put him in winter camps or spend hours after school every day playing goalie for him but man if I don’t have more important things to do with my time. And I want my kid to be a kid for as long as possible which, these days, ain’t very long. I also don’t want to burn him out on a sport he loves. What would be the point, anyway? So he can get be The Best? To what end?

    As any of you who are currently in the youth sports world know, my attitude is not necessarily the norm. There are people who hold their kids back from starting kindergarten just so they’ll be bigger and faster and more coordinated than their peers for sports (it’s called redshirting—read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s fascinating). Why? So you can brag to your friends that he scored the most/made the travel team/gets a college scholarship? And then what? You think he’s gonna make the Mets? Or the Knicks? Or the Giants? Don’t get me wrong, I want my kids to play sports. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want them to excel in whatever they do. But mostly I want them to love it. And to be well-rounded humans and to try lots of things and learn a lot and choose their own path. So that when the sports thing is over (and eventually it comes to an end—for many kids much sooner than you think), they have some life skills and other interests to fall back on.

    And then there’s the selfish part of all this. I don’t want to spend my entire life schlepping to practices and games. At least not yet. I have friends who don’t go away for family vacations anymore because they’re at lacrosse or baseball tournaments…for their seven-year-olds. My sister is at baseball games all weekend during season and her son practices Friday and Saturday nights in the off-season. What the what?! I am just so not ready for that. Again, maybe I’m being naïve. Maybe once my kids are really in it to win it I will have no choice. They will beg me to be on these teams and they will love it and I will support them. I don’t know anyone—in my own circle, at least—who is pushing their kids to play against their will. The kids love this stuff. It’s their normal. But is it normal? Is it good? Are we setting them up to get burnt out? To suffer overuse injuries? To miss out on all the other good stuff childhood has to offer? These are the questions I think about as I begin signing up Alex for more and more sports. And I know Nora will be right behind him.

    As I mentioned in my post for parenting, I had a bad college athletics experience and my career ended after only one year, which has definitely influenced me here but I’m not bitter, I swear (not anymore…). You might think I’m nuts talking about college already when my kids are so young, but trust me this is in the air for youth sports parents way sooner than you’d think. My quick takeaway: After many, many years of being sports obsessed, once I stopped playing and started doing other things (working for the school paper, spending more time in the art studio, doing magazine internships, making non-athlete friends, learning how to really live on my own), I realized how much of college life (and real life) there was to be lived outside of the train-train-train, win-win-win world of college athletics. And I felt very prepared for the real world, which, for most of us, doesn’t involve playing sports for a living. I was at a big program and it was intense; I know not everyone has this kind of experience, but mine has shaped me as a human and a mom in a way that I can’t deny. It’s not that I don’t want my kids to play sports in college if that’s the path they choose but trust me, I would be very happy if they opted to play club or went to a Division III school. I know a lot of my athlete friends would completely disagree with me here. And I think a lot of the more intense youth sports parents (you know the ones I’m talking about) are truly gunning for college scholarships for their kids. Check out the sidebar of the Parenting piece for the chances of that happening….

    I realize that it’s easy for me to make lofty declarations since my kids are still young and we’re not in the throes of this stuff yet. Maybe I’ll be eating my words the way I did with the “I would never let my kids act like that on an airplane” thing. D’oh! I know I will eventually be sacrificing plenty of weekends to drive them to games and cheer them on and I look forward to it. Lord knows my parents were on the road constantly with me between soccer and volleyball so I’ll have no right to complain. And as long as my kids are enjoying it, I’m willing to do it. Who knows maybe one day we’ll be watching one of them on ESPN. (Nick and I have jokingly fantasized about Alex being QB for Michigan…even though we don’t plan on him playing football…nor are we Tom Brady fans, just had to clear that up).

    That said, I will never, not ever, let them think that playing sports is the end-all, be-all. Or that being an athlete in any way absolves you from also being a well-rounded person, a good student and a contributing member of our family. We all knew the athletes who thought their shit didn’t stink just because they walked around in a team jersey carrying, say, a lacrosse stick. Full disclosure: I’m sure I thought my shit didn’t stink when I was playing for our high school soccer team (we were state champs and ranked No. 1 in the nation my junior year, I mean can you blame me?!). Being an athlete—and being on a winning team—is a whole lot of fun and I wouldn’t want to deny my kids that. But I want to keep it all in perspective. I know this post is a little all over the place but it’s the stuff I’ve been thinking about lately. I just worry a little. For my kids. For myself. For my sanity. I see how easy it is to get swept up in the culture of the day and I just hope I can keep one eye on land. Is this a good problem to have? Sure. My kid is healthy and athletic, cry me a river. Could my kid quit sports tomorrow and pick up the trumpet? Absolutely. Am I losing sleep over any of it? No. I just don’t ever want to lose sight of what, to me and Nick, is most important for our children. And it ain’t accumulating the most sports trophies.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Do your kids play sports? Are they on travel teams? Did they start young? Do you want them to play in college? Did you play in college? Has that influenced you as a youth sports parent? Have you seen the crazy competitive stuff start yet? Let’s discuss. And don’t forget to read the Parenting piece.


3 responses to “Why Kid Sports Scare the $@#! Out of Me” RSS icon

  • I couldn’t agree more. My son is totally into sports, all sports, and I worry about what our future holds…particularly now that we’ve added another boy to the mix. The older one is going to be five in a couple months, and we did a little six-week soccer thing over the winter. He’s hoping to get involved with lacrosse once he turns five, and t-ball is starting later in the summer. I don’t mind doing regular old sports, but when I see my friends traveling for their kids’ sports, it boggles my mind a bit. Not just the time, but the financial commitment. I just don’t want to go there. Perhaps that’s selfish, but I do want my kids to have time to just play (or, heck, read a book), and that sort of commitment is crazy. I don’t want to hold my kids back, but geez. I have already put my foot down and said no to hockey because the upfront financial implications are crazy, and I have zero desire to sit in a cold rink at 6am on a weekend. Sorry. We don’t live near much family and spend plenty of weekends traveling to see them already, and I’m sad that sports will probably prevent a lot of that, too. In addition, my husband works in sports (I used to, too), and he’s busy on weekends as it is, which means a lot of this will fall solely on me. While I’ll certainly do what I can to make my kids’ dreams come true, I’d rather not give up my sanity to do it. I guess at this point I just need to see how things go and make the decisions that need to be made at that point, but I won’t exactly be pushing to add more. If either kid turns out to be really good and it could give them a college scholarship and amazing opportunities, that might be a different story, but for now…

  • My daughter is 10 days old and my husband is already chanting soccer songs and sharing the latest scores with her. He’s sure shes going to be the female version of Messi so we might be in some trouble!

  • Erin – What I have read is great – cannot wait to read the whole piece. We do one sport a season in our house. But your whole opening line about the traveling soccer – this is making me re-think my attitude of caving into everyone else’s needs but my own lately. I need some wine, too :) .

Leave a reply